Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Digital ghosts

My computer has taken, lately, to randomly and spontaneously rebooting itself. It's a minor annoyance, because it means sitting around for a few minutes waiting for it start back up again, but only minor, because it only happens once every few days. I'm inclined to think that something'e overheating, but not sure exactly what it is.

It takes a few minuts to boot up because I have a lot of applications that load at startup -- instant messengers, video utilities, anti-virus apps, firewalls, things like that. Some of them are hangers-ons from previous days, applications I know longer use but haven't gotten around to removing yet. Others are loaded almost out of nostalgia -- in spite of my awareness that I no longer use it, it seems strange to not have it running anymore.

ICQ is one of those programs.

ICQ was the first major internet instant messaging application, and thus has been around longer than all the others, even though over the years many of the others -- like MSN Messenger -- have become far more popular.

There was a time once where 99% of my contacts were on ICQ, and I only had MSN installed for or two people who refused to use anything else. Fine, I'd think, I can have two chat apps installed without too much of a hassle.

A few months back, the last person I actually talked to in ICQ finally switched to MSN, and now my ICQ loads up every time my computer starts for no reason at all.

While I was waiting for my computer to reboot today, staring at all the programs starting during the boot-up process, I thought about removing ICQ. It's not really do much except taking up hard drive space and valuable system resources.

But then I thought about birthdays.

One of the neat features of ICQ (and maybe MSN has this too -- I'm not sure) is that, when someone on your contact list is approaching a birthday, you'll get a reminder. A crppy little snippet of "happy birthday" will play over your speakers, and a little icon flashing in your system tray will tell you that someone on your list is about to celebrate a birthday. And it gives you three days warning to go, "Oh, crap, I almost forgot it was their birthday!" and run out and buy them something nice.

And then I got to thinking about all these people on my ICQ contact list -- some of whom have been on there for close to ten years, and many of whom haven't been online in ICQ in five -- and how, in a way, it's a tiny little ghostly fragment of who they are. Their name is there. Their email address is there. Their birthday is there. And, if they haven't moved or changed occupations, their addresses and places of employment are there.

And whether they've been online or not, all that information still exists.

The idea manages to be simultaneously creepy and comforting. Creepy, because it's like someone is spying into your life -- or what your life was the last time you updated your ICQ profile. And comforting because, in a way, it's an acknowledgement that this person existed. They could wander into the forest and disappear without a trace, and yet this tiny little chunk of information that my computer has access to proves that they did, in fact, exist once. They were real. They were my friends. They had birthdays and addresses and home and work contact numbers.

It's a uniquely 21st century way of validating your existence.

So ICQ remains on my hard drive, and will for the foreseeable future (meaning, likely, until my next hard drive reformat). Because I like the birthday reminders. And because I like having access to these strange, digital ghosts of those who have come and gone, but who still remain embedded in my memory.


elise_on_life said...

That sounded like a newspaper article! Are you running it this week?

Todd said...

It does sort of sound that way, doesn't it? I had that exact same thought after I posted it last night.

It always seems a little cheap and little laszy to yank something off the blog for the paper, but I just might this time, as I've got nothing burning away in my unconscious for the column tomorrow.

elise_on_life said...

It'd be perfect. Although that means I don't get anything new to read tomorrow. Throw in some new line somewhere, something that'll surprise me. Then I'll have something new to read; and a mystery!